Glacier Discovery Walk is imagined as a 400-metre interpretative trail that meanders along a Rocky Mountain cliff-side leading to a glass-floored observation platform, which juts 30 metres out, and 280 metres above, the Sunwapta Valley in Jasper National Park.
The proposed multimillion-dollar tourist attraction would be built off of Alberta's Highway 93 – the Icefields Parkway – one of the most beautiful drives in the world. The facility would also be 6.5 kilometres up the road from the Athabasca Glacier, one of the globe's most publicly visible victims of global warming.
According to proponents of the project, it could attract nearly 263,000 visitors a year. But it is also attracting significant opposition.
The design, which was conceived by Calgary's Sturgess Architecture, recently beat out entries from 60 nations to win a future-projects award at the prestigious World Architecture Festival in Barcelona.
Brewster Travel Canada, which is behind the project, hoped to begin construction this summer for public use next spring, but opposition is mounting against it, driven in large part by an online global activist group.
Since Jan. 5, Avaaz.org has collected more than 178,000 signatures on its "Save Jasper National Park" petition, which warns of the privatization of a national park by an American-owned company.
Parks Canada is examining the proposal as well as 2,200 formal submissions by the public (not including the petition) and is expected to make a ruling by Tuesday. Brewster could be rejected, asked for more information or be given the green light to submit detailed construction plans and start lease negotiations.
The decision rests solely with Jasper's superintendent, Greg Fenton.
"The magnitude, the scope and the size of response is certainly something that we're not used to," he said.
For 80 years, there has been a parking lot that allows drivers to stop and enjoy the view of Sunwapta Canyon. But it is located at a blind corner on a steep hill with no signs, which has sometimes ended in sudden turnoffs, car accidents and collisions with wildlife.
Bighorn sheep, mountain goats, deer, elk, grizzly bears and wolves have been all spotted in the area.
Brewster estimates that visitation to the viewpoint would jump 219 per cent to 262,987 and of those, 180,000 would pay (the fee would range from $15 to $29) to use the discovery walk. Brewster won't talk about the cost of building, but Parks Canada said construction would run between $8-million and $12-million.
Mr. Fenton said the public response has been "polarized."
"There are certainly those that are in full support of it because they see that it has the potential for enhancing the visitor experience and enhancing the natural environment, and there's others that are definitely opposed to it for some [reasons]related to potential environmental consequences and some more philosophical or policy issues around commercialization and development," he said.
Glacier Discovery Walk has been in the works for a few years as a potential tourist draw that would meet Parks Canada's mandate to improve visitor experience and increase the number of tourists.
Icefields Parkway use has been declining since 1999 when it peaked at 518,301 vehicles, and according to Parks Canada's latest available figures, slid to 431,297 in 2006. Jasper's management plan calls for increasing visitors by 2 per cent per year – something Brewster would also like to see.
"We want people to spend more time in the Parkway rather than just driving through and looking out the window – actually get out and engage with the landscape, learn something," said Brewster's president, Michael Hannan.
To meet federal rules, Brewster held public consultations and hired Golder Associates of Calgary to conduct an environmental assessment.
The Golder report describes how the existing footprint of the lookout would be reconfigured, but 3,600-cubic-metres of rock would be removed from the face of the cliff. Rock blasting and drilling would be noisy. The facility would use hand sanitizers instead of piping in water, self-composting toilets and solar panels.
The report concluded that during construction, the impact would mostly be "negligible" or "low." There would be a "moderate" impact on traffic due to more vehicles as well as a "moderate" negative impact on the mortality to sheep and goats. But once the facility is complete, collision concerns would be moderately alleviated, but there would be a "moderate" increase in vehicle emissions. It also concludes that jobs would be created and the visitor experience would become "high."
Monica Andreef, executive director of the Association for Mountain Parks Protection and Enjoyment, a non-profit group that says it advocates for a balance between sustainable tourism and the environment, has written to Ottawa in support of the proposal as a "win for all sides."
"There's been a lot of emotional rhetoric surrounding this issue and we're concerned about misinformation," Ms. Andreef said.
Mr. Hannan said those opposed to the project fail to acknowledge the reality of the park.
"There are hotels," he pointed out, "There are ski hills. There are tramways and gondolas and guided tour companies. There are dry cleaners. There are lawyers. There are credit unions. There are banks. There are towns in the national parks. We're a business that is providing a service within the park the way every other business is operating within the park."
During public consultations last year, a number of local activists, environmentalists and others voiced concerns about the proposal.
Jim Pissot, executive director of Canmore, Alta.-based WildCanada Conservation Alliance, is among those who filed his objection to the project, which he called a "monstrosity." Federal Green Party Leader Elizabeth May weighed in against what she called a "theme-park like development" that sets a "damaging precedent" and places sensitive species at risk.
But it wasn't until a local activist turned to avaaz.org for help that opposition exploded.
Its online petition urged people to speak out against the proposal, which would privatize a section of Jasper by an American-owned company and kick off a slippery slope to more development.
Brewster, which was founded by two brothers in Banff, Alta. in 1892 where it is still headquartered, has had U.S.-based ownership since 1965. It has grown into a transportation, hotel and tour company that caters to about 1.5 million people a year throughout the Canadian Rockies, including a hotel near the Athabasca Glacier and an icefields bus tour. Its ownership is 100 per cent in the hands of Viad Corp., an events and tourism company based in Arizona.
Emma Ruby-Sachs, a Canadian who is the group's campaign director based in Chicago, said it is mostly Canadians who are signing the petition. While she acknowledges that the environmental assessment is "quite favourable" to the project, the petition is actually about not allowing national parks to be turned into "cash cows."
"Our campaign is really asking Canadians to draw a line in the sand and say if we let big corporations and their lobbyists turn our national parks into our money makers, there will be no end of it," she said.
Ms. Ruby-Sachs expects Mr. Fenton will have no choice but to respond to the "public outcry."
The petition gained speed through social media channels and within a day of the petition being posted, Ottawa issued a press release titled "setting the record straight." Mr. Fenton said Ottawa wanted to correct some "misinformation" and "inaccuracies." Ottawa still controls entry to the park where visitors can use services provided by businesses, and that economic benefits are part of what national parks offer, including those by Brewster.
Mr. Fenton knows he's in an unenviable position. Will some people walk away unhappy at the end? "Absolutely," he said.